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State-of-the-art medication and innovative cancer treatment

The image shows a section of the M2 G protein-coupled receptor in an activated state. (Image: Receptor Dynamics project)

The image shows a section of the M2 G protein-coupled receptor in an activated state. (Image: Receptor Dynamics project)

Two new international graduate schools funded by the Elite Network of Bavaria (ENB) will make a significant contribution to medical research. Young researchers are developing state-of-the-art drugs for disrupting communication between cells and examining methods of cancer treatment which strengthen the immune system.

Cancer cells have sophisticated mechanisms which prevent them from being destroyed by the immune system. At the Department of Haematology and Oncology, FAU, working groups led by Prof. Dr. Andreas Mackensen and Dr. Dimitrios Mougiakakos aim to break through the immunosuppressive mechanisms of the cancer cells so that they can be targeted by the immune system.

The FAU researchers are also collaborating with working groups from Technische Universität München and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München in the ‘iTarget’ project to research immunotherapy in cancer treatment. The Elite Network of Bavaria is funding the ‘iTarget’ project with EUR 1.3 million of which Erlangen will receive EUR 222,000.

Mackensen’s and Mougiakakos’s working groups represent two sub-projects: In the first sub-project, artificial antibodies will be used to improve the reaction of the immune system to a specific type of Leukaemia. In this type of Leukaemia tumour cells trick the immune system by mimicking healthy cells from the body which prevents them from being destroyed. These cells release messenger substances around the tumour, attracting suppressor cells which block actions of the immune system. The new antibodies or ‘killer’ immune cells navigate to the vicinity of the suppressor cells to destroy them and then eliminate the tumour cells.

Leukaemia cells release oxygen radicals – a harmful form of oxygen. Oxygen radicals can destroy the approaching immune cells and stop them from fighting the cancer. In the second sub-project, Mackensen and Mougiakakos intend to strengthen the immune cells by decreasing their sensitivity to oxygen radicals. The immune cells can be modified through the activation of certain signal paths or genetic manipulation to prepare them for such a hostile environment.

The second ENB-funded Graduate School that FAU is involved in is ‘Receptor Dynamics: Emerging Paradigms for Novel Drugs’. This Graduate School focuses on interdisciplinary research of the function of receptors in the cell membrane – proteins which trigger certain signals mechanisms according to a stimulus. A key element of the research is G protein-coupled receptors (GPCR), which can cause numerous illnesses if they do not function correctly. Humans produce approximately 800 different GPCR, but only a small percentage has been researched so far.

Drugs which attack communication within and between the cells are becoming ever more pivotal in modern research and vast progress has been made in this area over the last few years. Understanding exactly how the biochemical and physical signal mechanisms effect membrane receptors is an important foundation for developing specific drugs which can attack cell communication effectively.

The research group from Erlangen, led by Prof. Dr. Peter Gmeiner and Dr. Nuska Tschammer, Division of Medicinal Chemistry, is investigating the chemical production of innovative agents which can permanently modify the structure and behaviour of GPCRs.

The research project is international and interdisciplinary and young researchers can advance their expertise in a broad range of disciplines including medicinal chemistry, structural biology, pharmaceutical production and high-resolution imaging. The doctoral candidates are also responsible for their own research plans, budget and training plans – an excellent opportunity for early academic independence.

In addition to FAU, Julius-Maximilian-Universität Würzburg, the University of Regensburg and the University of Bayreuth are also involved in the project with a number of international partners, including the American winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Brian Kobilka und Robert Lefkowitz. The ENB is funding the project with approximately EUR 2 million.

Further information on the projects:

Prof. Dr. Andreas Mackensen
Phone: +49 (0)131 85 35955

Receptor Dynamics
Prof. Dr. Peter Gmeiner
Phone: +49 (0)9131 85 24116